Although he’s best known as one of the most successful comedy producers in the history of television, Norman Lear dabbled in features during the late ’60s and early ’70s, scoring a few minor hits as a screenwriter. His lone effort as a director was not as successful. The hyperkinetic satire Cold Turkey boasts an outlandish premise and impressive production values, to say nothing of a few wickedly funny moments, but the picture falls victim to its own ambitions. Based on a novel by Margaret Rau and Neil Rau called I’m Giving Them Up for Good, the movie begins when tobacco-company executive Mervin Wren (Bob Newhart) contrives a publicity stunt: His company pledges $25 million to any American town whose residents can give up smoking for an entire month. The offer is not sincere, however, because Wren figures nobody can muster the necessary willpower—but Wren didn’t count on Eagle Rock, Iowa, a struggling town where Rev. Clayton Brooks (Dick Van Dyke) is eager to demonstrate leadership so he can win a transfer to a more affluent parish.
Brooks makes it his mission to win the $25 million, so the bulk of the movie comprises his farcical attempts to keep residents from smoking, even as he fights off his own nicotine cravings. The unsubtle message is that Americans are so addicted to creature comforts they can’t make sacrifices under any circumstances, and Lear goes way over the top skewering American gluttony. During Eagle Rock’s smoke-free month, couples turn into sex maniacs to subvert their cravings; the local doctor (Barnard Hughes) becomes a scalpel-wielding maniac; the town drunk (Tom Poston) flees Eagle Rock rather than take part in the experiment; and so on. Lear stocks the picture with so many great comedy professionals—including the aforementioned plus Vincent Gardenia, Woodrow Parfrey, Jean Stapleton, and the comedy duo of Bob & Ray—that some of the gags connect even though the satire is incredibly obvious. There’s also a lot to be said for the film’s frenetic pace, since the movie zooms along at a crazy speed as it builds toward greater levels of chaos. In fact, had Lear found an ending that justified the manic buildup, Cold Turkey might have become a comedy classic. Instead, he opted for a dark ending that jarringly transforms the movie from sly to cynical. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on Amazon.com)
Cold Turkey: FUNKY